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Author of Book About Apollo Moon Landing Discusses US Space Program

Numerous books have been written about the Apollo moon program. Among the newest is Rocket Men (Viking, 2009), by Craig Nelson. In an interview with VOA's Art Chimes, he speaks about the geopolitical origins of Apollo, the challenges of getting to the moon, the men who flew the mission, and the legacy of this chapter in space exploration.

Q: Remind us why President Kennedy pledged America to go to the Moon.

NELSON: Well actually, there were a group of reasons behind his decision. The major and most pressing one was the fact that the Soviets had just launched [Yuri] into orbit, meaning they were far ahead of us. We had just only gotten [Alan] Shepard into a ballistic [orbit], but also he had had the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs [invasion of Cuba] and another embarrassment with the communist success in Laos, and he felt he needed to do something to get the country back in a more exalted form than these constant public humiliations that you could really trace back to [Moscow's shootdown of an American U2 spyplane]. So that was one answer to that question.

The second answer is the fact that the American public was terrified that the Soviet Union would turn space into a new battleground, that they could launch weapons from satellites and … we needed to prove that we had the technology to defend ourselves from that platform.

Q: We all grew up with science fiction movies where there's a rocket that looks like a gleaming silver tube and has big tail fins on it. One piece, though. Why didn't the Apollo rocket look like that, and end up looking like it did?

NELSON: The answer to that question is really fantastic in that it would take an enormous rocket to leave Earth's gravity as we saw with the Saturn. But it also takes an enormous rocket to leave moon's gravity if you have to bring back a three-man crew and all their supplies and all their equipment. In fact, they estimated that to land on the moon they would need a 30-meter [tall] rocket, meaning Armstrong and Aldrin's 'one small step' would have been including climbing down a 30-meter ladder to get to the surface of the moon. So that seemed impractical. And then what [Wernher] von Braun really wanted to do was to send up parts of the rocket and assemble them in Earth orbit before taking off for the moon, and that's in fact the technique they're planning on using for their next Constellation project. But they were in such a rush to get to the moon that it seemed it would take them too long to set up that procedure, and that's when they came up with the third technique, where the main craft orbits the moon while the lunar lander descends and ascends back, sort of like a dinghy going from a great ship into a small port.

Q: Tell me about the astronauts who actually were the first to go on the Apollo 11, the first moon trip - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins.

NELSON: What's interesting in learning about the astronauts is the fact that we come in with an impression of them as being wild, cowboy, daredevil types from The Right Stuff and Life magazine articles, and things like that. But in fact, they're really the opposite of that. The signature quality of these men, with their backgrounds in military test flight, is that they can sit and read out what dials and gauges are saying as their airplane is crashing to the ground, so that the engineers back on the ground will have the data to be able to produce a better airplane. So incredible coolness under pressure is the mark of a test pilot, and an astronaut. But beyond that, you can really say that the astronauts have almost nothing in common [with each other]. They're a very diverse group of people. And you really see that with the crew of 11. You have Mike Collins, who is the perfect wingman, expertly competent, but also a gourmand and an oenophile, who now paints watercolors in Florida in retirement. And you have Buzz Aldrin, who was so aggressive in pursuing his NASA career that he alienated many of the executives at the agency. And finally you have Neil Armstrong, who is so shy and so withdrawn, that many people have commented that, when you talk to him, they don't know if he's listening to what you're saying.

Q: Just a couple of years before the successful Apollo 11 flight, three astronauts were killed in a fire on the launch pad during a test in 1967. Despite that - and there were some close calls - those were the only American fatalities during the Apollo program. But how dangerous was it, actually?

NELSON: It was really, tremendously dangerous. And that was one of the shocks to me in researching this book. And it all came home to me when I realized that Armstrong came very close to being killed while working for NASA three times.

One of the most dramatic stories in the book is the actual descent of the lunar module to the surface, and it didn't exactly go according to plan.

NELSON: Well originally, NASA planned for the computer to land the Eagle all by itself, and human hands would not be involved at all. But what happened was, they were 4 miles [6 km] beyond where they were supposed to land. And Armstrong saw that the computer was bringing them down in a bunch of boulders. So he had to take control of the thing and land it himself, and meanwhile the Eagle had two radar systems, and they were conflicting with each other. And these conflicting numbers were sending the local computer into overdrive, and so it was flashing all of its alarms. And while that was all going on, the radio contact was missing between ground control and Eagle, and they had to reroute it through Mike Collins orbiting in Columbia, meaning another 3 second delay added to everything else. So as Armstrong is touching down he's so quiet, he's not saying a thing. And everyone at Mission Control is watching him run out of propellant, and he really landed at the last possible moment.

Q Apollo's legacy includes hundreds of kilos of moon rocks that were collected by Armstrong and Aldrin and the other astronauts. But for non-scientists, what products and technologies have emerged from the space program that we should think about?

NELSON: Well, you can really see that the whole technological age that we live in today has a lot to do with NASA because there was a dramatic evolution in computer power, so the fact that computers are present everywhere has a lot to do with the space program. The more direct applications have to do with MRI machines and dialysis machines and materials used for firefighters and other people in hazardous businesses, plastics and alloys and advances in very basic kinds of chemistry. But we've also had tremendous advances in basic science. We have a new higher theory on the origins of the moon itself because of Apollo.

But to me these are the small changes that happened. The big changes were the fact that at that moment, the United States was the most admired nation in the world by far, and how much that was worth to us, both because of the Cold War and as a defense issue, is incalculable. And it proved to Americans that we could defend ourselves in outer space. And it gave America a huge feeling of self-esteem and hope for the future that we weren't having at that moment.

Q: The moon landings were 40 years ago. Politicians like to talk about going back - they do talk about going back to the moon, or even going to Mars, yet here we are. The Space Shuttle seems to have trouble getting off the ground almost every time. What happened to NASA?

NELSON: Well I think when people say we're not doing Apollo or Apollo-like things anymore, NASA has declined and America has declined, but I really think that's a misreading of history. We had Apollo because of the Cold War, and we don't have it now just like we don't have helicopters in Vietnam anymore. But I do think there is going to be a re-ignition of the space race sometime in the future through competetion, either through politically, whether it's India, China or Russia again, or commercially, whether through discovery of a mining operation that's commercially feasible from outer space, or space tourism or something like that. In 10-15 years we may also see a revolution in booster technologies. So one of those things is going to re-ignite the space race, and I think that's what we need to go back to the moon and go on to Mars.